I stumbled across this piece of writing in an old journal of mine recently. After a bit of editing, it became what I would share this past Sunday at my dad’s surprise retirement party, as a tribute to him. This one’s got all the senses.
I have just finished my first semester studying religion at an obscure liberal arts college in Vermont. I return to Michigan as summer is settling in, my head full of Buddhist philosophies of detachment and compassion, my heart in the throes of an impossible love affair. At the beginning of June, I pay a visit to my father. It is 2008: the year before my father will find love and companionship again, the last year of many he has spent alone.
I escape the city, the distractions, and my mother’s teeming house in Ann Arbor, where I am immersed in the complexities of almost-step-families, pets, body work clients, and my teenage brother’s dreamy worlds and fashionable friends.
I stop in Lansing to teach a songwriting lesson and then cut loose up to Hubbardston, the place I come from. I barrel down the enchanted, rain-broken roads at twilight. The manure off the lush green fields smells almost sweet to my homesick nose. The sun stumbles through the patchwork of clouds, unable to keep itself decently covered. As I draw closer to the farm, it starts raining again, just a few fat drops with the sun still exposing itself lewdly in the distance. The brown of the dirt road glows with the shuddering satisfaction of quenched earth. The green of the fields looks like it is whirling up the very breeze that blows into my car—a magic trick the plants have been practicing just for me.
When I get to the farm I talk with Dad about politics in the school system—teachers’ rights and the administration’s disgraceful neglect of students—and we listen to a recording of the concert we played with my younger brother last Friday. Then he heads upstairs to rest up for his daily ritual that begins at 4:00 AM.
I stay up till nearly midnight, suddenly charged with energy. My fingers fly across the keys of my laptop as I save drafts of emails to every single person whose unanswered letter sits in my inbox. There’s no internet here, but I can’t stop the poetry, the philosophical musings, the admiration and respect as it flows to people I’ve known all my life, people I’ve just met, people I’ll never meet again. I don’t know what’s come over me—usually, I am not so reckless in my love of humanity.
I am awakened early by my father’s routine. I slept in the walkthrough, so he comes and goes on his way to the shower or to close the windows he’d opened during the night to cool the house. I could have put my ear plugs in, as I do most nights lately, but I didn’t, and I still don’t, even as his careful footsteps keep rousing me from sleep.
I want to hear this ritual, to be a part of it somehow. I want to feel that I know my father’s daily life intimately, as if I had grown up with him. As if it hadn’t been fourteen years since I’ve lived in this house. I don’t mind being woken up. I love every moment of his footsteps in the hall, his shower running, his window and fan adjustments.
I never fall back into a deep sleep. About an hour after he leaves, I rise to do as my father does. While he is away teaching, I find myself playing out what I know about his ritual. I let myself feel like my father’s daughter, like it wouldn’t be so bad to take a lesson from him. Surely, I will replicate some of his ways without even realizing it sometimes. I might as well embrace this fully, approach it head on. Perhaps with acceptance of the fact, I will be more able to change the habits I don’t want to replicate—the things that I believe made my father suffer.
So instead of taking my breakfast to a sunny spot, as I normally would, I sit down at the old round oak table in the dining room. There, he has a cutting board that he takes his meals on, and a duct-tape-and-tissue-box construction to prop up his books and magazines. A metal reading lamp with one of those natural-light bulbs sits to one side. I prop up my book on the tissue box, turn on the lamp, and sit in my father’s seat.
For lunch, I take it a step further: I boil soba noodles and heat up a jar of his homemade buckwheat turkey sauce with chopped carrots and greens. I eat what my father eats every morning. He says it gives him energy as he goes forth to give his whole heart and mind, as well as his popcorn, bad jokes and deafening sneezes, to his special education students. He needs all the vigor he can muster to stay on his game, and be present to these rejected cases, the kids no one else knows what to do with.
This is a part of my father’s story that I do want to replicate. I want to eat buckwheat every morning so I have the energy to give myself to the rejected and struggling ones.
Between breakfast and lunch, I pray the way my father does. On my own, I have developed my own postures of prayer. I have become critical of the habit of bending before God, as if I am somehow unworthy of fully basking in glory. I prefer to turn my face up to the light. But today, I get down on the rug in my father’s living room, just as he does every morning at 4:00, and I tuck my knees under me and curl forward into a little ball. I rest my forehead on my clasped hands, and give thanks to God. I send God’s love and peace to those I love and those I don’t know and those I want to learn to love. I pray to be a better person, there in the humble stance of my father.
After lunch, I sleep on the couch the way he always does after big meals, or sometimes all night when us kids come to visit. He took the bed out of his and mom’s old bedroom awhile back, and left a painting job half-done in there. Now there are only enough beds for the four of us kids to sleep comfortably when we are all there. Dad moves down to the couch without giving it a second thought.
When I wake up, I walk to the woods out past the alfalfa field. As I know my dad has done countless times on his hermetic forest romps, I head to the pond, strip off my clothes, and jump in.
It’s a spring-fed pond, and the water has a few warm pockets on the surface, but it is mostly as cold as March. I swim hard through the cotton-like seed pods that have accumulated on the water’s surface. When I pull myself back up on the raft, I am surprised at how tired my arms have grown. I can barely lift myself up.
Dad is back from school when I finally tromp back through the fields, spurred on by the rumbles of thunder and the clouds coming in. After taking his own rest on the couch, he gets up and makes me breakfast for dinner. We sit down to a feast that reminds me of my happiest memories of visiting my dad after the divorce. The food is the typical culinary style of my father—overburdened with vegetables, free of red meats, a little zealous on certain seasonings—but something about it is exquisite. It tastes better than anything I’ve had in years. He makes scrambled eggs with carrots, broccoli and green onions, cooked just right and bursting with a buttery flavor, though I know there is no butter in them. There are strips of turkey bacon cooked in the convection oven, with a sweet tang to the meat despite their low fat and sugar content. There are fried potatoes with some tarragon and dill, that are just the right amount of greasy and salty.
For dessert, Dad puts on pancake batter made of fresh-ground buckwheat, oats and pears. We sit down to steaming cakes, me with butter and him without, and top them with yogurt and local maple syrup. The pears are tender and sublime.
I recall so many breakfasts Dad did up right for us when we came to visit. It was one of the ways I knew—in spite of all the distance, sadness and uncertainty in our relationship with him—how much he loved us.
After dinner, we talk more about the politics at the school, and about the kids he tries to stand up for. One autistic student has been writing a lot of stories with violence in them. The administration is trying to get him to stop, but my dad suggested that maybe this could be a constructive tendency, and the student could become the next Stephen King. They did not appreciate the encouraging remark, particularly since it was made in a meeting with the student himself present.
We turn to the topic of Christianity, and the things we respect about the more conservative Evangelical members of our faith, and the things about them that make us grind our teeth. We stand out on the wrap-around front porch, waiting for a rainbow to appear among the deep gray of the clouds. We discuss the church’s debate about homosexuality and the cultural contexts in the Bible. I find his views more similar to mine than I’d thought, or maybe we are both just going softer—more open to encompassing everyone’s heartfelt say in things.
Later we move to the near-dark parlor and sit at the piano. Dad plays a beautiful melody of a gospel song he is writing. He plays it like a loop track while I try to write a second verse, squinting in the dim. It feels good to try to come together over a song like that, to put my vulnerability on the line and sing out my half-formed lyrics as Dad’s fingers move over the keys.
Then he starts playing a song that chants the words, “How can I serve you?” over and over again. I sway on the piano bench and feel like I am in church. I feel like raising my hands and turning my face upwards, as if God were waiting somewhere in the dark gray clouds.
“I want to sing that song every day of my internship,” I say. I am going to be working at a social service agency in Detroit this summer.
Dad says it is a morning song for him—he played it every day while the kids ate breakfast when he was a student teacher. “Poor kids,” he laughs.
But before this we had taken a walk with the dog down Maple Rapids Road, through that same broken humidity of yesterday evening, the freshly drenched fields breathing with life. We spoke of love, of relationships, of the struggle to find the right partner and the struggle to stick together. We spoke of the joy of being alone but also the pain of it at times. We recognized that we all long for closeness. We talked about our family, about him and mom, about bad decisions and things falling apart. But we spoke with the detachment and compassion that comes from years of slowly chipping away at your heart’s hard places. I heard my father speak out of years of curling up face-down on the living room rug and praying to be a better person. I heard him speak out of years of standing up from that worn spot and going forth into the day to find some way to serve someone. I heard my father speak with a voice I wouldn’t mind taking after.